World Rally Championship: Mini ignite new chapter
It was themed as ‘The Comeback’ and there were undisguised echoes of a glorious past at the official unveiling of the BMW Mini rally car.
The retro feel was everywhere at the Oxford launch — from the appearance of the first great Mini man, Paddy Hopkirk, to the new name, the ‘Mini John Cooper Works WRC’, honouring the creator of the original Mini Cooper 50 years ago.
For Hopkirk’s fellow Ulsterman Kris Meeke, who will lead the new team into the World championship in Sardinia in three weeks time, it was all about the future.
“There is a wonderful heritage behind the Mini brand and this launch makes you realise you are part of a much bigger picture,” said Meeke, the 2009 Intercontinental champion from Dungannon.
“My focus is on the future, the first rally in fact. That’s the most important thing and that’s what all the hard work by the engineers, the mechanics and the drivers has been geared towards since we started this project last year.
“It is over six months since my last rally and although I’ve covered several thousand kilometres in testing since then I’m itching to get going.”
As Meeke and his new team-mate, Spaniard Dani Sordo, rubbed shoulders with Mini Monte Carlo Rally legends Hopkirk and Rauno Aaltonen, the definitive version of the BMW Mini Countryman WRC was unveiled.
Developed by the British specialist engineering company Prodrive, who created the World championship-winning Subarus of a decade ago, it was dressed in the red and white colours of the past but looked like a Sixties Mini on steroids, a rugged muscle car for a different era.
Four-wheel-drive and powered by 1600cc turbocharged engine, it will go into action for the first time on the Italian round of the World Championship at the beginning of May, the first of six appearances this season before a full assault next year.
Meeke says he is impressed with the car, but candidly admits he and the team don’t know where it stands in comparison with the Citroens and Fords which dominate the World Championship.
An honours graduate in mechanical engineering from Queen’s University, Meeke has done the bulk of the test driving and says: “From everything we have learned so far it is a strong, reliable car, but is it fast enough? We just don’t know.”
It will be a chance, too, for Meeke to measure himself against the likes of World champion Sebastien Loeb, Sebastien Ogier and the Ford duo of Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala.
For although he is a rally winner and past IRC champion for Peugeot, he recognises this is a significant step up.
“I will have to find my level in this league; the Premier League,” he said. “I have competed against and beaten front-line drivers like Ogier, Latvala and my own team-mate Dani Sordo in the past and I have covered a lot of test mileage for Citroen alongside Loeb so I know what to expect.
“They have all been at World Championship level for a long time. On the plus side, they are still getting used to this new breed of Super 2000-based cars whereas I have been driving and winning in the IRC version of them for the past couple of years.”
But as the glitzy “Comeback” launch got into full swing, Meeke admitted he could feel the pressure of expectation building.
“For sure, the success of the Mini back in the Sixties adds to the pressure — but what’s new? It is no more than the pressure I put on myself to succeed.”